Supporters of governing party the Awami League attacking the High Court. Photos by Atish Saha.
Bangladeshis went to the polls in the country's bloodiest-ever election on Saturday. Well, some of them did. Early reports indicated only 22 percent of eligible voters excercized their democratic right. (The government's official counts indicated about 40 percent participation, while others argue it may have been as low as a tenth.) In a record-breaking 41 voting centers, not a single vote was cast. Some people stayed away due to cynicism at the country's political crisis, other were just trying to stay safe—21 people were killed in election day violence and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations. The ruling party won, but it wasn't much of a victory since the main opposition party boycotted the election, branding it a "farce."
To help you understand the extent of Bangladesh's political deadlock, I'll tell you an anecdote. A year ago, while visiting monuments to Bangladesh’s Liberation War with a Bangla language class for non-native speakers, I asked the teacher what she thought of the country’s current leaders, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia. “They should both die – together, in a fire!” she replied, smiling. Never mind that her job involved promoting Bangladeshi national history to foreigners. As a woman from the only nation to ever have a female head of state succeed another female head of state, you might have thought she would be a little proud, but apparently not. For my Bangla teacher, the political leadership in Bangladesh was so hopeless that only gallows humor made any sense. Over the last 12 months, politics in Bangladesh has continued in the same feckless vein, as well as grown increasingly violent for good measure.
The two female-led political parties of Bangladesh spent pretty much all of 2013 locked in a feud that began when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made some controversial changes to the constitution. Chief among these measures was the elimination of a neutral caretaker government that had formerly worked to ensure elections ran smoothly in a country with a turbulent political history. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, refused to take its seats in parliament for most of the year, preferring to spend its time calling a succession of anti-government strikes. Ruling party Awami League (AL) got on with the business of ruling the country autocratically, investing its energies in a heated war crimes tribunal.
Human Rights Watch and Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar have criticized the ruling party for allowing police to use lethal force on protesters. According to a report issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in late 2013, extrajudicial arrests are also a problem. “Around a thousand people, including opposition political leaders, activists, and innocent citizens, are being arrested and detained every month across the country,” it said. But the same groups have also pointed out that opposition protests, which could shut down the whole country, have involved bombings, arson, and the killing of innocent bystanders. There are no "goodies" in this battle.
Amid the carnage, both parties have stubbornly refused to work together, even as UN envoy Oscar Fernandez-Taranco flew to the country in December to spearhead peace talks. The frenetic but vague negotiations did very little to deter the violence, which continues to define Bangladesh's political crisis, with frequent clashes occurring in the run-up to last weekend's elections.
Awami League supporters attacking an attorney
In an attempt to disrupt the election, the BNP refused to run. This means the incumbent AL party ran unopposed for nearly 145 parliamentary seats (minority parties stood in a few). In fact, they were so sure of victory that they didn’t bother releasing their platform until December 29, just six days before the election, and did all their campaigning in just three days—from the January 1 to 3.
Lawyers being doused by a police water cannon
The absence of any genuine electioneering didn't mean an absence in melodrama. On December 29, for example, the BNP called an anti-government strike to protest against the upcoming election. The heavily promoted “March for Democracy” aimed to rally supporters at the BNP head office in central Dhaka. Egged on by the ruling party’s upper echelon, AL supporters physically attacked BNP-affiliated marchers. At Dhaka Press Club, BNP-supporting journalist unions were confronted by rock-throwing kids. Inside Dhaka’s High Court, a group of BNP-supporting lawyers found itself chased by some 100 AL supporters wielding sticks. The attackers beat female attorneys in front of the court, which was not in session at the time. In increasingly bizarre scenes, police then deployed water cannons against the lawyers.
I spoke to a High Court attorney (who asked not to be named), who told me that similar incidents occurred at the last election, in 2008. "Lawyers are required to be rescued [by the police], which is very much unlikely," he said. “In Bangladesh, lawyers are a very vulnerable group.” Which isn't surprising, considering they tend to support the rule of law that both the government and opposition habitually disrespect.
Zabir Hasan, a 27-year-old doctor studying public health, said the violence at the High Court took him by surprise. “That was the one place we—or me, as a representative of this generation—look up to,” he said, adding the incident “broke my heart.” Both men told me that their political views are closer to AL than the BNP. Before the polls opened, both were unenthusiastic about voting. Hasan said, “I see that voting for them will be a disgrace toward my right to vote, because the result is already decided. Even if all of the country votes for anyone else other than AL it will not change the result.” I also asked Amzad Hossain, a 32-year-old economist in Dhaka, for his thoughts. He said he’s never voted: “This time also I will not give any vote.”
Their words echoed a cluster of organizations that called in vain for the election to be postponed, saying the imbalanced participation of politicians makes it meaningless. On behalf of the group, which includes corruption watchdog Transparency International, barrister Rafique al Haque said, “There is no point of scoring in an empty field.”
During the March for Democracy, the AL ordered cops to man checkpoints at Dhaka’s major intersections. Police also arrested hundreds of people, including five opposition women leaders, and prevented BNP leader Khaleda Zia from leaving her home in the city’s Gulshan neighborhood. At its conclusion, the march's designated endpoint was so deserted that a local Bangla-language newspaper released the breaking news report: “Young Man Dancing in Front of BNP Office.” Zahirul Islam, a long-haired student from Comilla, summed up the meandering disempowerment of ordinary Bangladeshis when he told reporters that he’d crossed numerous barricades to reach the BNP office—“but when I got here I saw the Madame is not here, the party leaders are not here. So I did a dance.”
The aimless disengagement of the dancing man seemed to characterize the election. Amid the chaos and meager polling, AL won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats. It’s not clear whether results will be considered valid, if the increasingly dictatorial AL will retain power, or if the UN will show up again. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held a press conference on Monday during which she thanked the nation for her re-election, but opposition leader Khelada Zia again called the whole thing "farcical" and asked the government to schedule another election. Seven senior BNP figures were arrested on Tuesday (four of whom were swiftly released) as Hasina asked the security services to restore order at any cost. The Hindu minority, which is seen as being supportive of AL, is paying a heavy price—112 Hindu homes were torched yesterday, allegedly by supporters of the BNP and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami.
No one is quite sure how long political discord will continue. Government ministers have made predictions as to when consensus may be reached that range from January 24 of this year to 2019. Hossain, who called the election “bogus,” also said, “I think [unrest] will continue until the arrangement of a new election under a caretaker government or impartial government. It can be six months or more than that.” His guess is as good as anyone's. Until some kind of compromise is agreed upon, the country can expect more turmoil. Four days of nationwide protest called by the strike-happy BNP came to an end yesterday, but it doesn't seem like it will be long before they call for more.
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